Tai Chi for Cognitive Health

Tai Chi and Cognitive Health?

It’s may be no surprise that Tai Chi has physical benefits – after all, it involves movement. Well, did you know that Tai Chi may also have mental benefits? Specifically, a study from the University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai showed significant increases in the brain size, memory and thinking of older adults who practiced Tai Chi compared to other groups in the study. Previous studies had shown that aerobic exercise increased brain size, but this was the first time a “less aerobic” or “less strenuous” form of exercise (Tai Chi) was studied.

Who was Studied?

The researchers took a random group of older adults (men and women aged 60-79) from an area in Shanghai and placed them in four groups with equal numbers of men and women. The groups were structured as follows:

1. Aerobics (walking) – this group warmed up and stretched for 10 minutes and then walked quickly around a 400 meter (437 yards) circular route for 30 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of cool-down exercises.
2. Tai Chi – this group participated in Tai Chi.
3. Social Interaction – this group met with a group leader and assistant for one hour three times a week at the neighborhood community center. The researchers initially selected discussion topics for the group, but they soon found their own preferred topics. The group actually continued to meet for discussion for more than 2 years after the study was over.
4. No intervention – this group continued to live as they had before the researchers selected them for the study. They received regular calls during the study period to prevent them from dropping out.

Who was NOT Included?

It was necessary to exclude certain people from the study in order to closely study the link between Tai Chi and the brain. The study did not include:

1. Persons with a history of stroke, Parkinson’s disease or other neurologic disease.
2. People who could not walk unassisted for two kilometers (1.24 miles) or maintain balance with feet side by side or semi-tandem (with one foot behind the other so that the big toe of one foot is touching the side of the heel of the other) for 10 seconds.
3. Persons with dementia or moderate cognitive impairment and people who could not have MRIs for medical reasons.
4. Also, to avoid skewing the results, anybody who was already involved in regular vigorous exercise or Tai Chi was excluded.

What Happened?

The groups met three times a week for 40 weeks. During that time, the researchers monitored their brains by using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to make note of changes in the size (volume). The researchers also had the participants take several tests that use “neuropsychological measures” to analyze memory, and thinking (including verbal communication, ability to learn and measuring for dementia).

Additionally, the researchers analyzed the participants in the four groups to make sure sex, the average of the group members, level of education and exercise patterns 5 years before the study did not affect the results. The results showed that these factors made no significant difference in the outcome. Basically, the changes in brain volume and memory during the study were not connected to sex, age, education and 5-year exercise levels.

What were the Results?

The results showed that the participants in the no intervention group showed brain shrinkage that is consistent with persons in their age group (60-70). In contrast:

“The results showed that those in the Tai Chi and Social Interaction groups had significant increases in total brain volume and in neuropsychological measures” (tests on memory, thinking, dementia, etc). On the other hand, there was “no significant difference between the walkers compared to the no intervention group.”

“The largest and most consistent changes we observed were in the group practicing Tai Chi with smaller changes in the Social Interaction Group.” The researchers were surprised to find that “a presumably less aerobic form of exercise, Tai Chi, had the greatest effect on brain growth and cognitive performance.”

How and Why?

So now we know Tai Chi improves cognitive health, but how is that possible? How can a physical activity improve mental function?

The researchers concluded the following:

“ Tai Chi, which has been described as a type of moving meditation, requires continuous and sustained attention to maintenance of posture. Although advanced practitioners may be able to carry out the forms without much mental involvement, novices like those in the present study would require sustained attention. The higher level of intellectual involvement in this activity in comparison to walking around a circular course may have been a factor in leading to the disparity of results.”

Researchers believe that Tai Chi increases blood flow and the delivery of oxygen to the brain. They also think that it increases the brain’s response to certain growth factors and neurotrophins. Neurotrophins are proteins which sustain neurons. Neurons are the basic building block of the nervous system and the nervous system is the brain’s information super highway. Nerves send messages to and from the brain and the body.

Specifically, Tai Chi and other exercises may improve the health of brain by improving the brain’s response to the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF has been shown to protect neurons and to improve the growth and multiplication of brain cells responsible for thinking and memory. This growth usually slows down as we get older, but exercise may reverse that.

Why do We Care?

Why is this practical?  Research has shown that brain shrinkage is somehow connected to dementia.  Therefore, if we can reduce or delay brain shrinkage, perhaps we can reduce or delay the incidence and onset of dementia/alzheimer’s disease. This study showed that Tai Chi increased the brain size and memory of the participants and therefore it may delay or reduce the incidence and onset of dementia/alzherimer’s disease. Consequently, Tai Chi may just be a form of exercise that will preserve a sharp mind!

Read the study:

James A. Mortimer, Ding Ding, Amy R. Borenstein, Charles DeCarli, Qihao Guo, Yougui Wu, Qianhua Zhao, Shugang Chu. Changes in Brain Volume and Cognition in a Randomized Trial of Exercise and Social Interaction in a Community-Based Sample of Non-Demented Chinese Elders, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease  2012; 30 (4).

Click here to read the study.

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